Our resident film critic, Michael Cresci, is transporting his (non) award-winning film review blog, “Cresci Reviews…” to its permanent new home, The Waiver Wire! You can also hear Michael Cresci and co-host Vinny Ginardi talk movies and television on their Waiver Wired podcast, “Short Commercial Break“. To read previous reviews click here!
NOTE: This review was slated to appear weeks ago but Hurricane Sandy got in the way. Apologies to our readers and well wishes to all those who suffered far worse than power outages.
If you traveled back in time to, let’s say, 2003, waited outside of a showing of Daredevil and told everyone exiting that Ben Affleck would go on to be an extremely successful director who would make box office hits that critics enjoyed, you would have been labeled crazy by more than a few theater goers. Much has been made of Affleck’s impressive career reinvention and with good reason. His first feature, Gone Baby Gone, is a shockingly good crime film with an original voice and great performances. It ends in a moral dilemma that still has my head spinning (some credit must go to the Dennis Lehane novel it’s based on) and announced Affleck as a legitimate director.
His follow-up, The Town, was a step down and is a bit preposterous at times but it’s an enjoyable crime flick featuring strong directing and a great Jeremy Renner performance. Now comes Argo, a 70′s influenced political thriller based on the Iran Hostage Crisis which occurred from 1979- 1981 and held the nation in a state of constant unrest. It focuses on the on the untold story of a CIA extraction mission in which the hostages and a lone operative, Tony Mendez (Affleck) posed as a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for a fake science fiction film entitled “Argo”. The crazy true story plays out as an exciting, well made political thriller and, though the critical and public reaction have overrated Argo, the result is a well made film and a great time at the movies.
Perhaps I should start with my “overrated” label. I want to be clear that “overrated” and “bad” are very different. Argo is excellent, but the buzz on this film based on the word of mouth and much of the critical reception is that it’s a surefire Best Picture favorite and an instant classic. That’s simply not true. It’s an expertly crafted thriller which does just about everything right but it’s not a game changing film. It’s not No Country For Old Men or Pulp Fiction, both Best Picture contenders which defied conventions and featured bold singular filmmaking. It is, however, a great popcorn movie bolstered by excellent pacing, perfectly realized period details and a tone that owes a lot to the political thrillers of the 1970′s.
I’m going to avoid an overlong plot summary as I’ve already covered the basics, the thrills would be cheapened by excessive spoilers and the true story is on the historical record. If you’re remotely aware of U.S. history than you know the hostages ultimately survive, it’s not a spoiler if it’s a real thing that occurred over three decades ago. Also Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, decades erase the need for spoiler warnings.. Suffice to say that Mendez , with the support of his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (the superhuman Bryan Cranston) launches an operation to rescue six escaped hostages who are hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
He recruits legendary makeup/FX artist and CIA consultant, John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up a fake studio, provide a script, and lend their fake project an air of credibility. Goodman and Arkin provide much of the film’s humor and their performances are a lot of fun. The plot of the film comprises Mendez’s efforts to get the plan in place and the actual operation itself.
The film’s opening is a tense sequence in which the US embassy is overrun by an enraged mob in the center of Tehran. We see embassy workers shredding and incinerating papers, trying to decide if help is coming, attempting to flee and getting attacked by the mob. A small group of six makes it out but the rest are taken as hostages. The scene creates an aura of dread that hangs over the proceedings in Iran and does a great job establishing natural tension. This lends period authenticity to the film and helps present the stakes early.
From there the movie focuses a bit on the boredom and tension that grows among the six escaped hostages while Tony tries to get his plan into motion by recruiting Chambers and Siegel, getting a script, creating publicity and concept art and selling his bosses on the gimmicky plan.
It’s hard to find a single flaw in the film. It’s expertly paced, constantly exciting/nerve-wracking and the acting is spot on. Some of the characters are a bit underdeveloped, Mendez’s relationship with his son is supposed to expand him a little but it doesn’t offer much in terms of depth. Arkin and Goodman provide comic relief more than well-rounded characters and the six hostages aren’t explored too deeply, though they do a good job with the material. The real star here is the story which unfolds through well shot forays into Washington back rooms, the Canadian ambassadors home a few exciting set pieces in Iran.
All in all, Argo serves as the best sort of popcorn movie. It doesn’t have an engaging thematic elements of experiment with film conventions and it lacks any serious iconic moments (As a film, historically it has plenty) but it’s made with passion, well shot, exciting from start to finish and a lot of fun. It’s well worth the price of a ticket, and while some of the buzz is overselling the movie as special, game changing film, Argo is a critical and financial success because Affleck took an important moment and US History and told the story about as well as anyone could. So much for making Gigli jokes.